Israel as Sideshow

Former CIA analysts

During an interview with British journalist Robert Fisk on Democracy Now! on October 1, the morning after the first Bush-Kerry presidential debate, Amy Goodman’s associate Juan Gonzalez, clearly hoping for a substantive response, observed to Fisk that Israel had hardly been mentioned during the debate; each presidential candidate mentioned it only once, and moderator Jim Lehrer asked no questions at all about Israel or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But Fisk simply dismissed the issue as of no particular moment. Sure, he said, this is something you just cannot talk about in political discussions in the U.S., and so he did not.

Fisk was not sympathizing with this very American impulse to push aside an issue of overriding importance, but his brush-off did help perpetuate a serious misconception in American politics. One of the enduring myths of the Arab-Israeli and especially the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is that this conflict, and the U.S.-Israeli relationship at its heart, is basically a sideshow, vitally important emotionally to American Jews and in fact to most Americans but of no great strategic significance to U.S. national interests. This sense among far too many Americans that Israel has no relationship to U.S. global policies, and particularly to the U.S. pursuit of empire, has been particularly evident in the last few years, just when everyone truly desirous of a peaceful Middle East should have been promoting precisely the opposite viewpoint.

In the last year, there has been a rash of investigative films and in-depth studies and analyses put out by progressive journalists and media outlets that examine the U.S. drive for global hegemony and try to look at why terrorists are targeting the U.S. These journalists and media outlets, the very progressives who should best be able to “get it,” have all totally or almost totally ignored the Israeli connection to the Iraq war and to the various other Bush administration plans for the Middle East: the much discussed possibility of an attack on Iran and its nuclear capability, the possible plans to attack Syria, the so-called “transformation” of the Middle East supposed to come about by foisting a false democracy on it upon the wings of cruise missiles and B-52s.

These documentaries and reports include particularly such widely circulated video presentations as Uncovered, which made a big splash late last year, and Hijacking Catastrophe, which is very popular right now. There is also Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Among the reports are at least two very serious in-depth studies done by Foreign Policy in Focus (“A Secure America in a Secure World,” published in September 2004) and by a think tank at Notre Dame (“Toward a More Secure America: Grounding U.S. Policy in Global Realities,” jointly published in November 2003 by the Fourth Freedom Forum and the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame). Both of these studies were signed on to by a wide range of highly respected scholars and former government experts. And, of course, there is the 9/11 Commission report, which is being taken in most circles as the definitive word on what went wrong before September 11 and whether U.S. foreign policy had anything to do with provoking the attack.

Hijacking Catastrophe actually gets close to the Israeli connection by directly examining the neo-conservative plot to induce the fear in average Americans that would serve as Bush’s mandate for implementing the plans for an invasion of Iraq that the neo-cons had formulated long before, largely for the benefit of Israel. But this film, as well as the others like it and the reports, all stop just short of examining the Israeli connection to U.S. war-mongering in the Middle East. These are all excellent exposés of Bush administration empire-building and oil greed, but film after film and investigative report after investigative report ignore one of the most important strategic motivators for the Iraq war: Israel and the effort to guarantee Israel’s security by neutralizing its greatest threat, which was Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The neo-cons are now working on Iran, and you can bet that, if the U.S. attacks Iran, a year or two hence when that war begins to go bad, everyone will ignore Israel’s connection to that one too — even though, with Saddam gone, Iran is now Israel’s greatest threat.

(Both Bush and Kerry did actually slip up a bit in their first debate by mentioning the Israeli connection to Iraq, but this was ever so en passant, so that virtually no one noticed. Bush volunteered that, along with other imagined benefits to the U.S. and the world, “a free Iraq will help secure Israel.” Kerry, not to be outdone in the competition to fawn on Israel, inserted a statement that he will “get it right” in Iraq because “it’s important to Israel, it’s important to America, it’s important to the world.” The candidates may have lost sight momentarily of the general desire to downplay any Israeli connection, but each undoubtedly thought it more important for the moment not to let his opponent gain an advantage in the competition to demonstrate the greatest support for Israel. Nevertheless, this whole episode blew over in the blink of an eye, and in the arena of public discourse, Israel remains a sideshow.)

The bottom line here is that virtually no one — no analyst, no moviemaker — wants to touch the Israel issue. You can’t sell a movie like Fahrenheit 9/11 if you talk about Israel; you won’t have the same impact, and you certainly won’t be able to make any money, if you are seen to criticize Israel in any way, so better just to ignore it. In actuality, it is impossible to get around the fact that most of the neo-conservatives in this current administration, who wield a great deal of influence over U.S. foreign policy, have long been active supporters of Israel, even to the point of opposing past U.S. policy on the peace process that went against the desires of Israel’s right wing. It is also impossible to get around the fact that many of the neo-cons happen to be Jewish. But this is reality; in the surreal world of U.S. and Israeli politics, you cannot bring this up. It is anti-Semitic, you are told, to say that Jews have any power at all, because that begins to sound like the old canards, which really were anti-Semitic, that used to put forth a specious case for Jews trying to run the world.

So no one wants to touch the issue. The result is that the moviemakers and commentators who mold public opinion too often steer away from it. This is true even of progressive journalists who know the realities. It is true also of virtually all politicians, most of whom don’t know the realities, with the blessed exception of Ralph Nader. It is true of former diplomats. It’s impossible to count on the fingers of two hands the number of retired diplomats who, called upon in various public forums to expatiate on U.S. policy toward Palestine-Israel, will spout meaningless formulas or beg off entirely because the subject is too sensitive, too dangerous, too set in the concrete determined by domestic politics.

As a result of this pervasive silence, public opinion comes to think that Israel has no strategic influence on the U.S., that the U.S. certainly wouldn’t ever carry out any policy because of Israel or even in cooperation with Israel, and that Israel’s policies in the occupied territories and its oppression of the Palestinians have no strategic impact anywhere and could not possibly factor in to the reasons the U.S. is targeted by terrorists or to the reality that most of the Arab and Muslim world hates the United States because of its foreign policies and particularly because it enables Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. Israel is the elephant in the room of empire.

There is a vicious circle at work here: the less the media and politicians discuss Israel-Palestine, the less knowledgeable and the less interested the public becomes, and vice versa. The general tone of the few press articles that took note of the candidates’ silence following the first Bush-Kerry debate was that Palestinian-Israeli issues are of little concern to the public and therefore should concern the candidates little. Shibley Telhami, a leading Middle East expert and himself a Palestinian American, was quoted as saying that the issue is not “on the agenda for the public” and is therefore of low priority for the candidates. “They have bigger fish to fry,” said another scholar from a Middle East think tank in Washington. According to a Council on Foreign Relations poll taken in August, respondents placed resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at number 17 on a list of 19 important issues for the next administration. The Israelis are getting the message. An article in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz summed it up: “The candidates can’t be blamed. They didn’t set the agenda for the electorate; they only respond to it, and the voters are far from being interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

This is appalling — a startling upending of the concept of leadership, a huge failure of understanding by the American public, and a dismal failure of understanding by the politicians in whose hands U.S. security is supposed to lie. In fact, the U.S.-Israeli relationship has grown so very close over the years that it is almost impossible to distinguish whose policy, Israel’s or ours, is being pursued in the Middle East, and this is a reality that puts the United States in grave danger.

The U.S.-Israeli tie has been growing steadily since well before there was an established state of Israel — from the time when the Zionist movement arose and won the support of much of the American public and of early twentieth-century policymakers. But by now, the political culture in the United States has turned so decidedly toward support for Israel that any alternative view is almost impossible to express. This is more true nowadays than at any time in the past, and today the relationship is much more than a matter simply of emotional sympathy for the plight of Jews or admiration for Israel’s accomplishments, much more than merely a matter of looking at the conflict from an Israel-centered perspective.

After decades of ever-solidifying ties, Israel is now so closely linked to the United States in concrete ways that it is actually a part of the U.S. military-industrial complex. Israel sells military equipment, with our knowledge, to countries to which the U.S. is restricted by law from selling — for instance, to China. So many arms and types of arms are produced in the U.S. for Israel that it has become quite easy for Israel’s lobbyists in Washington to go to individual congressmen and point out to them how many jobs in a given district depend on this arms industry and on not withholding arms from Israel. In this way, Israel becomes a direct factor in sustaining the U.S. military-industrial complex, in maintaining jobs in the U.S., and in keeping congressmen and other politicians in office.

With the kind of pro-Israeli activists who people the policymaking ranks of the Bush administration, it has come to the point that the U.S. gears much of its foreign policy to furthering Israel’s interests as much or more than to furthering our own interests. Bush policymakers have as little interest in actually resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as the voters in the Council on Foreign Relations poll whom they are supposed to be leading; their interest is in dealing with the conflict in whatever way Israeli sees fit. One of the primary reasons we went to war in Iraq was to benefit Israel. This reality is so frightening that it needs to be trumpeted whenever motivations for the war are discussed. The United States’ own pursuit of global hegemony was obviously another major motivation, as was oil, but U.S. and Israeli goals in the Middle East are so intertwined that it is impossible to determine where a policymaker like Paul Wolfowitz, for instance, or Donald Rumsfeld or the many neo-conservatives in the Defense Department stop thinking of Israeli interests and begin to think exclusively of U.S. interests. Policy and policymakers are so closely interlinked that there probably is no such point. This needs to be discussed loudly and often.

One problem with treating Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians as a sideshow, with no direct impact on U.S. interests, is that the more Israel is ignored as a factor, as an ingredient in U.S. empire-building, the stronger Israel becomes, the stronger its ties to the military-industrial complex, the more it is able to stand up to the United States and resist any U.S. demands — in the peace process for instance — the more it is able to kill Palestinians, pursue its territorial aggrandizement, and ultimately endanger the United States. Everything Israel does in the Middle East is perceived throughout the world, and accurately so, as having been condoned, encouraged, and enabled by the United States, with the result that any terrorists able to concoct an attack like September 11 will target us before they will target Israel.

Another problem is that the entire anti-war and anti-empire movement in the U.S. is split on the question of policy toward Israel, and efforts to hide this split are widespread. Two different arguments, both spurious, are made in favor of continuing the cover-up. The first is that the U.S.-Israeli relationship is simply not a major causal factor behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq or the U.S. desire to concentrate its drive for global domination first and foremost on the Middle East. Many Israeli and American-Jewish peace activists firmly support this argument, and it cannot be denied that many non-Jewish activists do also, although some of these may do so at least in part for tactical reasons.

The second argument is completely tactical, and those who espouse it openly recognize that fact. This argument alleges that unity in the U.S. peace movement is important above all else, and that we will weaken the movement irretrievably unless we ignore the controversial Israel-Palestine problem. The fear is that media companies and publishers will refuse to distribute documentary videos, films, books, and articles if we challenge establishment positions on Israel and Palestine, and that fewer people will watch or buy or read our documentaries and writings. The rationalization is often put forward that there are so many other issues on which we can attack the bellicose policies of the U.S. that it is really not even necessary to deal with the particular hot potato of the American relationship with Israel.

For starters, the argument goes, we have oil to talk about; the wrongs of global domination; the immoral wars against “terrorism” (which is nothing but a tactic) as self-servingly defined by Washington and its allies; killings of thousands of innocents in Afghanistan and Iraq that the U.S. refuses even to count; the injustices of a U.S. version of economic globalization that has widened the gap between rich and poor throughout the world; ever-expanding military expenditures in the U.S.; more new American military bases almost everywhere; continuing U.S. support for authoritarian governments in the Arab world, Central Asia, and elsewhere; new nuclear weapons produced by a blatantly hypocritical U.S. government futilely trying at the same time to prevent unfriendly nations and non-state entities from obtaining nukes, etc., etc., etc.

So, with so much to talk about, why bother with one more issue that is exceedingly troublesome? Just ignore the Israel-Palestine thing and the excessive pandering by both Republicans and Democrats to a terrible right-wing Israeli government. After all, criticizing any Israeli policy comes too close to anti-Semitism, and that would destroy the peace movement. So — play on the team. At the same time, we must still deplore, and at great length, acts against Israelis such as the recent terrorism at Taba, whether committed by Palestinians, by al Qaeda, or by anyone else, and we must be careful to avoid serious criticism of any Israeli retaliation, even though that retaliation may be on a scale two or three times greater than the original terrorism. And of course it would also be better not to rile up Israel and its AIPAC supporters by talking loudly about Israel’s recent excessive killings of Palestinians in Gaza — many more than the number of Israelis killed at Taba. Just let all that go. Unity of the peace movement is far more important.

At a time when most Republican and Democratic leaders already pander quite thoroughly to AIPAC and the present Israeli government, how can we change the situation? First, those leaders of the peace movement who believe such pandering is wrong should show some courage. They should forget about unity with anyone who believes that present U.S. policies toward Israel and Palestine are morally justifiable and beneficial to future global peace and stability. Then, they should also loudly and publicly announce their belief that criticizing Israel’s cruel and oppressive policies toward Palestinians is not anti-Semitism, just as criticizing the present combined Republican and Democratic policy of supporting Israel so completely is not anti-Americanism. They should lead in the peace effort and cease trying to achieve unity with anyone who believes, absurdly, that criticism of any government’s policies constitutes ethnic hatred.

Certainly, there are multiple aspects of U.S. foreign and military policies that peace activists in this country should be working to change. But none of the elements of U.S. global policies in the list above is more important as a cause for hatred of U.S. policies around the world, and therefore as a potential cause of future terrorism against the U.S. and its allies, than the failure to impose meaningful restraints on Israel’s occupation and its behavior toward Palestinians. By erasing U.S. policies toward Israel from the list of acceptable targets for criticism, too many peace movement spokesmen inevitably — and sometimes perhaps unconsciously — exaggerate the importance of other U.S. policies. What has been exaggerated the most, in part because it best suits the propaganda needs of Israel’s Likud government, is the U.S. relationship to, and the role of, authoritarian Arab governments as a root cause of the September 11 terrorist acts.

This exaggeration particularly applies to the misplaced emphasis on the alleged ties of the Saudi Arabian government to the events of that date. The Saudi royal family’s almost feudal rule, supported for over half a century by the U.S., and the resulting alienation of many average Saudis, particularly among the young, both from the U.S. and from their own government’s policies, clearly constitute one — although only one — of the causes of terrorism against the U.S. and its allies. But efforts by Israeli officials and friends of Israel in the U.S. to magnify this as the single root cause above all others began immediately after September 11 and have largely succeeded.

Unfortunately, to take just one example, Michael Moore and his film Fahrenheit 9/11 contributed substantially to this success, both by devoting so much attention to the Saudis and by ignoring U.S. support for Israel as a considerably more important factor behind terrorism against the United States. Such distortions have been close to universal in other recent films and academic analyses of U.S. foreign policies as well, making it easier for any administration to conclude that it can “win” or “solve” the so-called war on terror while continuing to support Israel’s colonization of the West Bank to the hilt.

And in the meantime, the U.S. relationship with Israel continues to be treated, at all levels of political discourse in the United States, as a sideshow to larger strategic questions. This is extremely dangerous. There will be no resolution to the war on terror and no easing of the hatred of the United States by our own allies and by the Arab and Muslim world, until there is a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that gives as much justice to Palestinians as to Israelis. We ignore the direct danger Israel poses to us at our own peril. Our drive for empire already came back to bite us three years ago on September 11, and it will come back again as long as we fail to distinguish our own interests from Israel’s.

Yet The campaign rhetoric of Bush and Kerry snores on, and neither the candidates nor the media moderators of their so-called debates have once raised the issue of justice for the Palestinians. The sideshow recedes ever farther from the minds of Americans, even as the likelihood mounts of an international explosion arising from this issue.

Bill Christison was a senior official of the CIA. He served as a National Intelligence Officer and as Director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis. He is a contributor to Imperial Crusades, CounterPunch’s new history of the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kathleen Christison is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 30 years. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession.

There essay Dual Loyalities is a centerpiece of CounterPunch’s The Politics of Anti-Semitism.

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Bill Christison was a senior official of the CIA. Kathleen Christison is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession.